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Category — CREW

From the Passenger Pigeon to Conservation at the Cincinnati Zoo

Guest blogger: Sophie Williams, Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP) student and consultant on the Passenger Pigeon Memorial renovation

The reason we study the story of the passenger pigeon is not to be sad about its loss, but to be aware. Humans have a great capacity to do good, but we also have the ability to exhaust seemingly endless riches. It is important to recognize the impact we as humans can have on our environment, and take steps to conserve natural resources, both species and habitats, while we can.

The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is at the cutting-edge of conservation research and action. From genetic research conducted at the Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) to the Zoo’s Go Green initiatives you can participate in both at the Zoo and at home, the Cincinnati Zoo is committed to saving endangered plants and animals from extinction in North America and around the world.  Here are just a few examples.

Sumatran Rhino Conservation

The Sumatran rhinoceros is one of the most endangered animals on the planet, with only about 100 individuals left. CREW’s Signature Sumatran Rhino Project has been a leader in captive breeding efforts for this critically endangered animal since 1997. In 2001, the first Sumatran rhino calf to be born in captivity in 112 years was born at the Cincinnati Zoo, thanks to CREW’s breakthrough research. Since then, two other calves have been born at the Zoo, and in 2007, the Zoo’s first-born rhino calf, Andalas, was relocated to the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary (SRS) on the island of Sumatra to serve as the catalyst for a breeding program in the species’ native land. A few years later, Andalas’s mate, Ratu, gave birth to a healthy male calf, a huge success for the species!

In addition to its leadership role in the Sumatran rhino captive breeding program, CREW scientists partner with conservation organization Rhino Global Partnerships to protect Sumatran rhinos in the wild by helping to support Rhino Protection Units. These units are trained to protect the rhinos from poachers, the greatest threat to the species. Furthermore, financial support and CREW staff expertise are provided to facilitate the captive breeding program on Sumatra. CREW’s Signature Sumatran Rhino Project, with its international collaboration, is conservation work at its finest.

Sumatran rhino with baby (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Sumatran rhino with baby (Photo: Dave Jenike)

Gorilla Conservation

Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered in the wild, with less than 175,000 individuals. Due primarily to habitat destruction caused by logging, mineral mining, and agricultural expansion, wild gorilla numbers continue to shrink. The bushmeat trade—the killing of wild animals to be used as human food—is also a major threat to the western lowland gorilla population throughout the Central African rainforests. Over 1,000 gorillas are illegally poached for the bushmeat trade each year.

The Cincinnati Zoo supports wild gorilla conservation efforts such as the Mbeli Bai Study. The Mbeli Bai Study is the longest running research being done with wild western lowland gorillas. Through research, local education programs, publications, and documentaries, the Mbeli Bai Study is raising international awareness for gorillas and their struggle for survival.

Gorillas in Congo (Photo: Thomas Breuer)

Gorillas in Congo (Photo: Thomas Breuer)

African Lion Conservation

Another way the Zoo contributes to species conservation worldwide is through support of global initiatives to protect wildlife and minimize human-wildlife conflict. The Zoo provides funding to support Rebuilding the Pride, a community-based conservation program that combines tradition and modern technology to restore a healthy lion population while reducing the loss of livestock to lions in Kenya’s South Rift Valley.

Local Maasai research assistants track the movement of both livestock and lions in an effort to understand seasonal movements and identify conflict hotspots. Some of the lions have been fitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars for better tracking. The collars transmit four locations a day to a central server, giving detailed information on the exact movement of the lions. Knowing where the prides are lets herders know where to avoid grazing their livestock.

The program also deploys a Conflict Response Team to mitigate any conflicts that arise between people and lions. When herders must move through areas with lions, they call on community game scouts to accompany them for extra protection. The team also helps find and rescue lost livestock that would have otherwise fallen victim to predation.

Thanks to these efforts, lion populations in the region are growing. Once down to a low of about 10 known lions in the area, the population is now estimated to be nearly 70. The prides have been producing cubs and new lions are moving in from surrounding areas. The Rebuilding the Pride program has greatly contributed to the robustness of the lion population, minimized human-wildlife conflict, and become a strong community-based conservation program.

Lions in Kenya (Photo: Lily Maynard)

Lions in Kenya (Photo: Lily Maynard)

To read the other posts in this series, click here. Join us in April as we celebrate Earth Day and community activism!

March 17, 2014   3 Comments

The sniffer dog results are in….

sniffer

Elvis sniffing polar bear fecal samples.

Elvis has spent the past three weeks sniffing fecal samples from polar bears around the country, making his predictions on which bears might be pregnant. Elvis is trained to pause and sit immediately when he detects a pregnancy—and does not show interest at samples from non-pregnant bears. Last week, Elvis was presented multiple times with two separate samples (collected on 10/12/13 and 10/20/13), from the Cincinnati Zoo’s female polar bear, Berit. Unfortunately, Elvis did not show interest in either sample, indicating she may not be expecting cubs this fall.

Berit sleeping in Lords of the Arctic exhibit.

Berit sleeping in Lords of the Arctic exhibit.

The sniffer dog project is part of a larger effort to study reproduction in polar bears. Scientists at CREW have been monitoring polar bears since 2008 and have analyzed over 14,000 fecal samples from 55 polar bears living in North American zoos. In addition to the Elvis test, we’ve been measuring Berit’s fecal hormone levels and performing ultrasound examinations in attempts to gain more information about her pregnancy status. Taken together, it seems that Berit is probably experiencing a pseudo-pregnancy, also known as a false pregnancy. Pseudo-pregnancy occurs when a female’s hormones, namely progesterone, increase to levels similar to those of a true pregnancy. However, in a pseudo-pregnancy, no fetus is present. Like pregnant bears, pseudo-pregnant females often gain weight (Berit gained almost 200 pounds this season!) and may behave like they’re pregnant, building nests and spending more time in their dens.

We’re not sure why pseudo-pregnancy occurs in polar bears but it seems to be a common phenomenon in many females we’ve monitored. A goal of CREW’s polar bear research is to develop a test to differentiate pseudo-pregnancy from true pregnancy. If Elvis proves successful, the next step is to identify the specific compound in the fecal samples that Elvis is signaling on and then develop a laboratory-based method to measure it. A test that distinguishes pregnancy from pseudo-pregnancy could potentially be applicable to other species that experience pseudo-pregnancy, such as endangered cat species, otters, and red pandas.

Since the sniffer dog project is still in the testing phase, we are not making any major management changes based on Elvis’s predictions. Berit’s keepers continue to keep a close eye on her and she still has access to a den and extra bedding if she wants it. Berit has never produced offspring, so while Elvis’s predictions are disappointing, they are not a total surprise. Berit is of prime reproductive age for a polar bear (14 years) and we have not lost hope that she may have cubs next year!

November 19, 2013   1 Comment

Beagle Sniffs out a Pregnancy Test for Polar Bears

Elvis the beagle sniffs polar bear fecal samples.

Elvis the beagle sniffs polar bear fecal samples.

Over the past two weeks, Elvis the pregnancy diagnosing beagle, has been hard at work smelling fecal samples (yes, fecal samples) collected from 17 female polar bears, including the Cincinnati Zoo’s own female, Berit. Currently, there is no definitive test for pregnancy in polar bears, so Elvis has been trained to identify samples that originated from pregnant females in an effort to predict which females are due to have cubs in a few weeks. Last week, Elvis demonstrated an impressive 100% accuracy on the known ‘test’ samples he had never smelled before, signaling appropriately on the pregnant samples while ignoring those that came from non-pregnant individuals.

Elvis the polar bear pregnancy detective.

Elvis the polar bear pregnancy detective.

We humans don’t yet know exactly what Elvis is smelling that enables him to identify the samples from pregnant bears. In his early training, he was exposed only to samples that came from pregnant bears. Over time, other samples, such as those from males and from juveniles were introduced, but he was only rewarded when he signaled on the pregnant samples. Eventually, samples from females in estrus and females known not to be pregnant were thrown in the mix. After months of training, Elvis has seemingly figured out what makes the samples from pregnant females different from all others.

A dog’s sense of smell is incredibly powerful- Elvis possesses around 225 million olfactory (smell) receptors in his nose, compared to just 5 million in a human’s.  Dogs also make better use of another olfactory organ, Jacobson’s organ, allowing them to detect pheromones which are other chemical communicators of physiology (and possibly pregnancy?). Additionally, the part of a dog’s brain dedicated to analyzing smells is 40 times greater than ours. As a result, a dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than that of humans.

“If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well” said James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University.

Put another way, while we would probably notice if our coffee has a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth, according to Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher and author of Inside of a Dog.

Elvis_Infogram

Because their noses are so sensitive, precautions need to be taken so we don’t inadvertently compromise the results. Samples are double-bagged and stored separately to make sure scent cross-contamination doesn’t occur and the tubes that hold the samples on the training boards are thoroughly washed between samples- a time consuming process. Currently, Elvis is working through two-to-three samples, in replicates, from each of the 17 possibly pregnant bears to ensure his predictions are consistent for the same individual. Each institution will be notified of the results for its bears within the week.

So while it might sound like a terrible job to us, we joke that Elvis is the envy of his peers at Iron Heart High Performance Working Dogs. While the other detection-dogs-in-training are smelling bed bugs, explosives, drugs, or toxic mold, Elvis gets to smell poop and is even rewarded for it- isn’t that every dog’s dream?

In Kansas with Elvis and his training team.

In Kansas with Elvis and his training team.

November 8, 2013   1 Comment